Thursday, August 21, 2008

African Reading Challange - We Wish to Inform You...

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.
by Philip Gourevitch

I had heard bits about the book, but what I was expecting was depressing accounts by Tutsi survivors from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Instead I was surprised by this book that pulled me in telling me, yes some survivors accounts, but far more interesting what happened after, the role (or lack thereof) of the international community, and a peek at the bigger picture.

During the 1994 genocide the world at large was left in the dark about what was happening in Rwanda. Many in the media and NGO world wrote the actions of the Hutus off as “tribal conflict.” However with the subsequent migration of Hutus (both the killers and innocents) after the genocide into the Congo, the media became involved as cholera swept through the “refugee” camps. Suddenly those responsible were becoming the victims. And they were using the Aid organizations to their advantage.

Many humanitarian Aid-Workers told me they had similarly anguished thoughts [of wanting a natural disaster to take out the refugee camps], but that didn’t stop them from settling in. It bothered them that the camp leaders might be war criminals, not refugees in any conventional sense of the world, but fugitives. It was unpleasant to hear these leaders say that the refugees would never return except as they had come, en masse, and that when they went back they would finish the job they had started with the Tutsis. And it was really disturbing that within weeks of their arrival, even before the cholera had been brought entirely under control, armed bands from the camps began waging a guerrilla war of blood cross-border raids on Rwanda. Some humanitarian agencies found the extreme politicisation and militarization of the camps so distasteful that in November 1994 they pulled out of Goma. But others eagerly filled the empty places.

I had never heard this and Philip Gourevitch does an amazing job of interviewing everyone. It’s an opportunity to hear the story of the genocide and what happened after from all sides – victim, “criminal,” politicians – both locally and foreign, Aid workers, NGOs. It is absolutely worth the read!

One part in particular stood out to me. It is a description of genocide.

“’I hear you’re interested in genocide,’ the American said, ‘Do you know what Genocide is?’

I asked him to tell me.

‘A cheese sandwich,’ he said. ‘Write that down. Genocide is a cheese sandwich.’

I asked him how he figured that.

‘What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?’ he said. ‘Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity. Where’s humanity? Who’s humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just over a million Rwandans. Did you ever hear about the Genocide convention?’

I said I had.

‘That convention,’ the American at the bar said, ‘makes a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich.’”

The best way to sum up the book is the words of Robert Stone, an American Novelist.

“Young Philip Gourevitch brings us a report from the killing fields of Africa that makes him as a major successor to the handful of great correspondents who have risked life and safety to bring dark truths to a world reluctant to know of them. Like the greatest war reporters, he raises the human banner in hell’s mouth, the insignia of common sense, of quiet moral authority, of blessed humor. He has the mind of a scholar along with the capacity of a good novelist, and he writes like an angel. This volume establishes him as the peer of Michael Herr, Rysard Kapuscinski, and Tobias Wolff. I think there is no limit to what we may expect from him.”
And the title? It comes from a letter from a group of Tutsi and moderate Hutu that were hiding in a hospital, knowing the end was coming. They thought they may write to their mayor hoping he might help. (Turns out, he was probably behind it.) The politeness of the letter seems so out of place considering the circumstances.

Review written for the African Reading Challenge.

1 comment:

Omutahinga said...

I've been avoiding this book because like you, I expect it to be depressing. Thank you for the review. I will certainly pick it up, if for nothing else than to read how he 'writes like an angel'.